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BY JOSEF FEDERMAN
JERUSALEM--Israel's defense minister on Monday called for a broad unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank if talks with the Palestinians remain stalled, saying in published comments that "practical steps" are needed to breathe life into the stalemated peace process.
The proposal drew attention to the dire state of affairs with the Palestinians, which has been overshadowed by Israel's focus on the Iranian nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, convinced that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons, says the Islamic Republic must be stopped and has devoted his 3-year term to rallying international support against the Iranians. At the same time, he has largely ignored the Palestinian issue.
In an interview with the Israel Hayom daily, Defense Minister Ehud Barak implied that the deadlock with the Palestinians cannot be sustained indefinitely.
"It's better to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but if that doesn't happen, we must take practical steps to start a separation," he said. "It will help us not only in dealing with the Palestinians, but also with other countries in the region, with the Europeans, and with the American administration--and of course [will help] us."
Barak's proposal is unlikely to be implemented, at least in the short term. Netanyahu has shown no interest in one-sided concessions, and his governing coalition is dominated by hard-liners who would be reluctant to embrace the plan. Netanyahu's office declined comment.
The 12 million people who live in Israel and the Palestinian territories are divided roughly equally between Jews and Arabs. Most experts believe the Arab birthrate is higher, and that if Israel does not give up control of the West Bank, Jews will no longer be a majority in areas under Israeli control. That would threaten Israel's twin goals of being a democracy and a Jewish state.